Franco-American history features a number of commercial and diplomatic disputes, from the “chicken war” in the 1960s to Donald Trump’s recent declarations about taxing steel and aluminum imported from Europe. With its boycotts and protectionist policies, we explore these conflicts through five episodes looking at the history of certain controversial products.
Episode 3: Freedom Fries Flout the French
The United States declared war on Iraq in 2003 and tried to build a military coalition. Despite its status as a historical ally, France refused to join. In a speech given before the U.N. Security Council, the country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs at the time, Dominique de Villepin, described the military intervention as the “worst of all solutions.”
The result was a wave of Francophobia that washed over North America, supported by members of congress and senators. French products were even boycotted by U.S. consumers for several months.
“Freedom” Served at the Capitol Hill Cafeteria
One unexpected victim of frosty Franco-American relations was the humble potato fry. The owner of a restaurant in North Carolina decided to replace the “French fries” on the menu with “freedom fries.” However, as he himself stated, the move was nothing new. During World War I, sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and frankfurter sausages were rebranded as “hot dogs” in the United States.
Inspired by this snubbing revamp, Republican congressman for Ohio, Bob Ney, took things a step further. He instated the names “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” (previously “French toast”) at the Capitol Hill canteen in Washington, where U.S. senators and members of congress eat lunch. “This action today is a small, but symbolic effort,” he said, claiming he wanted to “show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France.”
His decision was not backed by all, however. “I wonder if it’s worth a comment”, said the spokeswoman for the French embassy in Washington, Nathalie Loiseau. “We are working these days on very, very serious issues of war and peace, life or death. We are not working on potatoes”. She then promptly reminded everyone that fries are in fact originally from Belgium.
A Double-Edged Boycott
The Americans didn’t stop at freedom fries, either. Between 2003 and 2006, certain restaurant owners tried to find equivalent products to replace foie gras and truffles. In New York, wine merchants poured bottles of Bordeaux into the gutter while filmed by news cameras. Both gastronomy and fashion took a direct hit.
This campaign was encouraged by a number of activists who financed advertising space in the U.S. media. American journalist Christopher Rudy listed brands to avoid on his website, including Air France, Michelin, Lancôme, Evian, Perrier, Renault, PSA Peugeot, and Elle magazine. In an ironic blow, several French-sounding U.S. brands also suffered from this spontaneous boycott. Grey Poupon mustard and certain L’Oréal shampoo ranges produced in the United States saw their sales slip.
As for the fries on Capitol Hill, they had their former name restored when Bob Ney resigned after being caught up in a corruption scandal.